In the 1950s, so far as the Cuban economy was concerned, any comparison to the Latin American regional context seemed irrelevant.
While Cuban currency and wages remained comparatively stable throughout the 1950s, consumption of foreign imports, particularly North American products, increased dramatically from $515 million in 1950 to $777 million in 1958. Cubans paid North American prices at a time when the purchasing power of the US dollar was declining and the US consumer price index was rising.
Obviously, the United States, not Latin America, served as the social and economic frame of reference for the island’s urban population.
Using this baseline, the Cuban per capita income of $374 was insignificant against the United States per capita of $2,000, or even that of Mississippi, the poorest state, at $1,000.
This context was particularly challenging since Havana also ranked among the world’s most expensive cities — fourth after Caracas, Ankara, and Manila. As a consequence, life in Havana was considerably more expensive than in any North American city.
A privileged minority of Cubans, concentrated mainly in the capital, enjoyed a pseudo-American lifestyle and preferred American produced goods. Moreover, privileged habaneros flouted their wealth. For example, in 1954, Havana had the largest number of Cadillacs per capita of any city in the world.
In contrast to the conspicuous consumption of the more affluent, middle-class Cubans were struggling. They knew that their standard of living was eroding, especially since they were falling far behind income advances in the United States.
Per capita income in Cuba in the 1950s declined by 18 per cent, neutralizing the slow gains made during the postwar period. In 1958, the Cuban per capita income was at about the same level as it had been in 1947.
Falling income levels were met with mounting inflation, and real estate values, especially, were soaring.
Land in Vedado selling in 1941 for $12 a meter had increased by 1957 to $200 a meter.
With the average industrial wage approximating $120 a month, the prospects of home ownership were clearly diminishing.
Cuba’s housing situation before the 1959 revolution reflected the country’s general level of development. Real estate was a major investment arena and rampant real estate speculation was the norm after World War II.
Because housing was so unaffordable, a large percentage of Havana’s residents were renters. In fact, by 1953, tenants represented nearly three-fifths of households in all urban areas and three-fourths of those in Havana.
Tenancy was so popular that, in the two decades before the revolution, renters acquired a series of protections and rights even more advanced than in most jurisdictions in the US today. For example, Cuba instituted rent control in 1939 and has continued it in one form or another until the present.
Despite rent control, tenants paid on average nearly one-fourth of their incomes for rent, high compared to other countries at the time. Also, landlords devised numerous ways to circumvent restrictions. The most frequent were subletting, furniture fees, and “key money.”
Ultimately, investors responded to the rent laws by developing condominiums rather than rental units. The shift to condominium construction was also in response to rent laws establishing a “right to occupancy” which meant that eviction was possible only with just cause. Despite this right, an estimated 70,000 evictions a year were ordered in the mid-1950s out of a total urban rental stock of 460,000 units. In fact, condominium construction dominated the Vedado landscape throughout the 1950s. The new apartments were sold on the installment plan, with mortgage holders charging usurious rates.
Despite Havana’s problems, its middle class continued to receive a disproportionate share of national revenues. Almost 20% of the population living on 0.5% of the national territory accounted for 80% of all construction, 70% of the consumption of electricity, 62% of salaries and wages, 73% of all telephones, and 60% of all automobiles.
Approximately 95% of the city’s dwellings had electricity and 80% had running water. This was in sharp contrast to rural dwellings where 90% had no electricity or running water.
These advantages were not enough for middle-class residents who observed that the proportion of children attending primary school in the 1950s was lower than in the 1920s, and the purchasing power of Cuban exports between 1952 and 1956 was no more than it had been thirty years earlier.
social undercurrents ran deep during the late 1950s and contributed to transforming the struggle against Batista from a political contest between elite power contenders into a more ambiguous movement for socio-economic change….By the late 1950s, protest and unrest among different classes had given the anti-Batista struggle the character of a protest movement drawing on social frustration, economic loss, and political anger.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.